The majority of what I know about art is owed to two things. The first is making a lot of paintings and drawings. The second is conversations with Walter Darby Bannard.
Bannard is a third-generation Abstract Expressionist who came to prominence in the mid-1960s along with his friends Jules Olitski and Frank Stella. Clement Greenberg was close with all of them. Though Stella’s reputation held, Bannard’s fell along with Greenberg’s over the course of the 1980s, which concluded with Darby leaving New York and taking over as chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. Whatever this meant for Darby’s career, it was immensely good fortune for me, as I was able to work with him as a graduate student.
Darby possesses a rare combination of taste, intellect, and verbal acumen. His writings, an archive of which I have edited, contain some of the most astute observations about art I’ve run across outside of Greenberg’s. Indeed, Darby could and would argue with Greenberg to their mutual pleasure.
Having quietly nurtured talent at UM since then, the silence around his legacy broke on the evening of March 19 of this year, when an exhibition of his reductive paintings from the late 1950s and early ‘60s opened at Berry Campbell. At one point, hardly another body could have fit in the gallery. Darby stood at the front desk, greeting well-wishers (and a few ill-wishers, too) with his customary jocularity. I spoke with him the following morning.
Franklin Einspruch: Did you have an initial “aha” moment about abstraction? How did you know that it was something that you wanted to be involved in?
Walter Darby Bannard: It just seemed more exciting, that’s all. It’s kind of like food, you discover that something tastes good and you want more. At Princeton in the mid-’50s I had an instructor who was an abstract painter, Bill Seitz, who later became a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He did the
Responsive Eye exhibition, which was an Op Art show. The people I was friends with liked abstract painting. Then Frank [Stella] came along, a couple of classes behind me, and he was an abstract painter. Mike Fried was there, and a guy named Dave Comey, who loved autos and killed himself in a car crash unfortunately. We all just loved abstract painting and went to New York and looked at abstract painting.
Abstraction bewilders a lot of people when they first see it. It did me. You didn’t experience that.
I was brought up in an atmosphere with a lot of music in it, which is an analogous interest. When I was seven years old we lived in the country, at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill was a black church. I was a kid in the country and I would wander around. One Sunday I was next to this black church. I heard this music coming out of it. I was—what’s the cliche?— riveted. I’d never heard anything like it. I actually went during the week and broke into the church to look at the pump organ and stuff they had there and pushed it and wondered at it. I thought these machines were making the music. I was only seven years old.
That’s how it is with abstract painting, it just takes you over. I remember looking at one of these little intellectual magazines when I was sixteen and I saw a de Kooning painting, and thought, wow, that’s really cool.
When I was eleven I saw a picture in the rotogravure, the color section of the Sunday paper. This magazine had a page that said, “which kind of art do you like?” On one side there was a picture of a painting of a clown, and on the other side was a painting by Ben Nicholson. I said to myself, well, I sure know what I like. In fact I’m going to cut it out and put it in my wallet. I loved this Ben Nicholson so much and before I had no idea that there was any such thing as that. It’s like falling in love. I had no idea that there were any social consequences to this. The magazine only did it to get people upset, presuming that everyone is going to like the clown, and I didn’t even know that, I just thought the Nicholson was a beautiful painting. It was in a rotogravure that had all the quality of comic strips, but I just loved it.
Do you remember the frame of mind that you brought to this work in the Berry Campbell exhibition, the impulse to make a painting as simple as possible?
My professor at Princeton told Frank, David, and me that we should go look at Rothko. So we went to look at Rothko, and we thought it was idiotic. It was just a lot of yellow—this show happened to be a bunch of yellow squares. But it affected me mightily and pretty soon I was painting Rothkos in our little studio. I was interested in all kinds of painting. I was very interested in Pop Art, for instance. Rauschenberg in particular turned me on. And I did lots and lots of Pop Art things. I did “event”-type art. We were all anti-de Kooning, who for us represented sensitivity, and we had decided that we were not going to be sensitive. I got the idea that it would be really cool to get a big balloon and shape it as a de Kooning woman, fill it with hydrogen, let it up in the sky right before dawn, and when the sun came up, to fire tracer bullets at it so that the whole thing would explode like the Hindenberg.
The Beat poets, Corso and Kerouac and Ginsberg and a few others, came down to Princeton to give a reading. So I had decided that I was going to make a big hit with these guys by telling them my Blow Up de Kooning idea. They were nice, quiet, polite people. They weren’t wild at all. I told the whole room, which turned utterly silent. LeRoi Jones, who later became Amiri Baraka, turned to me and said, “Man, you really are crazy.” I was so hurt and abashed. They just thought I was nuts.
Before I was making Pop Art stuff and doing drawings of figures floating in the sky. I had an obsession with that for some reason. Then I saw a Clyfford Still in Art News in 1958, and I was fascinated. It was a full-page red painting, a really good one. So I went right to my studio and did Clyfford Stills for a while. I was also interested in centrality and simplicity and this idea of presentation. I had this painting with a red circle and some Clyfford Still-y stuff on top and some Clifford Still-y stuff on the bottom. Frank said, you don’t need the thing on the top, and Mike Fried said, you don’t need the thing on the bottom, so I had a circle. I said, holy shit, that’s really all I need to make a total, in-your-face presentation. I thought that was just wonderful.
Then I went to see the Barnett Newman show at French & Co. I saw that there was another person doing the same thing, only with a line instead of a circle. That told me that I had permission to do what I was doing. Back then if you did a painting like that people wouldn’t even take it as a painting. The closest they could come was to call it Bauhaus, which was not only out of fashion but didn’t interest us at all. That was an absolutely different motivation altogether.
So you made these paintings before you saw Ad Reinhardt.
I did see Reinhardt, but I didn’t like it. I saw one of the black paintings in the Modern, and all the black paintings have this faint, slightly different value and design on them. But this one had wrinkles, and the light from the window was making the wrinkles the strongest component on the painting. All you saw was light wrinkles and blackness. I said, “That sucks, that’s a cop-out, I hate that.” In my journal I wrote, “NO REINHARDT!!!” But Reinhardt was one of the people doing this presentational work.
And by presentation you’re talking about..?
Simplicity that’s not Cubist-derived. Mondrian is Cubist-derived, and Bauhaus is Cubist-derived, and Malevich and all the Russian constructivists all came out of Cubism. It was taking cubism to an extreme. Me and Frank and Frank’s buddies, Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton, didn’t have any interest in Cubist-derived simplicity. Ellsworth Kelly was doing it and Rauschenberg was doing it in a way with his early, simple stuff. Gottlieb was doing it. There was this impulse to put a simple thing right in the middle of the picture and it wasn’t Cubist simplicity, it was presentational simplicity. Something was staring right back at you like it was another person. That idea just fascinated me. I thought, this is the best way to present color—make it into a painting, but just barely.
Did anyone push back on the idea that that was painting? Did you encounter resistance?
I didn’t encounter resistance because nobody had any idea what I was doing. I was painting in my basement and didn’t have any interest or exposure until ‘64, which is about five years after I started doing it. My first exposure was at Tibor de Nagy in 1965. Of course, there were people who looked at the paintings and said, “This is awful, this is stupid, this is not even painting,” but not the art world, because the art world didn’t know who the hell I was. When I got started with this it was just a matter of developing color combinations so I was happy as a clam for four or five years, painting these things. But nobody really cared except for people like Frank and Mike.
Why did you stop making them?
Boredom. It was laborious to make these paintings. They required layer after layer after layer of paint. Otherwise you wouldn’t get the simplicity and the lack of brushstrokes. It was like Chinese lacquer, you needed the layers to make it work. And then I saw Olitski’s paintings, and I was knocked out. I had a crisis in the mid-Sixties, and I decided I had to do something new. The problem with abstraction is that when you have a crisis in painting you have to start from scratch. Everybody thinks it’s easy but when you begin something new you have to get yourself a whole new set of conventions and methods.
I’ve been telling students for years that being an artist and feeling bored with your work is like being a doctor and killing your patient. You’ve gone into a fundamentally incorrect place with regard to your work.
It’s an element of seriousness about your art. If you’re getting bored with your art and you recognize it, I think you have to pay attention to that. Otherwise you’re just churning out stuff forever. That would make me go nuts.
Clem came out to my house where I had all my circles and squares, and he pulled out some older paintings that were more painterly and said, “This is what you’re going to be doing in ten years, this other stuff is temporary.” I thought, this guy’s full of shit. Those circles and squares, he liked them all right, but he didn’t think there were long-lasting. And he was right.
When did you first meet Greenberg?
At the Gauss lectures at Princeton in 1958. Mike Fried was very interested in these lectures so Frank and I went with him. I didn’t understand a thing that he was saying, which wasn’t his fault, but I got to talk to him later at the after party.
I was working in a gallery that was also a frame shop and a print shop, and my boss was a huge admirer of Clem. My boss was already getting impatient with me because I would paint and I would work as little as I could. This guy was in the front of the gallery, I was in the back, and Clem walked in and this guy was absolutely beside himself with pleasure. And Clem said, “Where’s Darby?” He came in the back because he was interested in talking to me. He liked what I said about Gottlieb at that initial meeting, I remember. He said, “You understand Gottlieb better than anybody I know. That’s great.” He sought me out at the store and that was a huge ego boost for me and the opposite for the guy who owned the gallery. I thought that was really cool. So I kept up that relationship. We used to sit and argue and talk all the time. It was wonderful to have that kind of brain to work with.
We disagreed about a lot but not the fundamentals. He underrated American artists, oddly enough. Winslow Homer, Milton Avery, Edward Hopper he didn’t think much of, and I thought and still think they’re wonderful. I thought he had a little too much appreciation for the newness of the mechanical operations behind Pollock’s drip paintings. A lot of his admiration for Olitski was the same kind of thing. There were a lot of artists he liked that I thought were second-rate. He underrated [Giorgio] Morandi and he overrated [Georges] Matthieu. Horacio Torres was an interesting artist but that whole business of cutting off the head and the legs is such a corny thing. Torres was okay but Clem just went wild about him.
Clem liked the old masters better than the abstract artists. If we were at a museum he’d say, “Let’s go see the old masters.” I’d say, “Oh, come on, Clem, I don’t want to see the old masters, I’m tired of them. They’re all brown. Let’s go see if there’s anything modern.” I always liked modern artists better than the old masters unless we’re talking about someone like Rembrandt, who’s a goddamn jumping genius. Most of them really are just brown and dark and gloomy.
Something I’ve come to appreciate in Clement Greenberg’s writings is that after a while he not only knew that he was going to be misunderstood, he knew the manner in which he was going to be misunderstood. So he started to try to preempt the misunderstanding, then finally gave up on the prospect of ever being correctly read.
Yes, he said several times in his writing something like, “Of course what I’m saying won’t be understood.” Even last night at the opening there were people who wanted to make big points to me about Greenberg. They absolutely detest him and completely misunderstand him. This thing is still going on, even now, with people claiming that he found artists who were cooperative and told them what moves to make, and that they became his little clique. I said to one of these people last night that I used ask Clem all the time what I should do in my studio. I’d say, “Tell me what to do!” And he’d say, “No! I’m not going to do that. All I’m going to tell you is that I like this and don’t like that.” And that’s all he ever did. He never had any suggestions like, “There’s too much red over there.” But nobody wants to believe that.
Why do you think that is?
That’s a very interesting question. What Greenberg did infuriated the art world. It had something to do with the authority and the quality of his writing. I can’t say forcefulness of his writing because it wasn’t forceful writing.
He admitted to its being declarative, as he put it.
It was declarative but that derived from his eye, and his certainty about the rightness of his eye, his ability to see what was good and not so good. He wrote so clearly and so transparently that it just got people enraged.
If you don’t have commitment to good art as such, and you don’t believe the idea that there’s very little good art, you’re on the defense against anyone who does believe it. And if that person has power and influence he becomes the villain. If you’re in the art world, and you’re on the side of crappy art, which 99% of the art world is, it’s an automatically inimical thing to have a voice like that around. Anybody who embodies this is an enemy. That attitude is killing the messenger because that’s basically what Greenberg was. This is the guy who said that Jackson Pollock was one of the strongest painters of our generation back in the 1940s. And lo and behold, it turned out to be true. This pisses people off. I had a friend who went around saying that Jackson Pollock couldn’t be a good painter because he didn’t use a brush. So if Jackson Pollock becomes a million-dollar painter and everyone says he’s great, you were wrong, you’re a jerk. People don’t like that.
Your motives for making art have stayed constant from almost the beginning, it seems.
Following my eye and impulses, that’s all. Everybody’s gone off on other tangents, but to me that’s the most interesting thing. Painting survives because of its restrictions. I like to compare it to games. If you go out and play a football game and people get a bat and say, “let’s use this instead,” you’re going to have an audience that says, “I don’t like this.” They want something that has conventions and supports those conventions.
The first panel I was ever on was “Painting Is Dead” in 1966 at New York University. I was sitting next to Robert Rauschenberg, and the moderator, Barbara Rose, was in between us and Donald Judd and Larry Poons on the other side of the table. Of course, I was all for painting, Poons was all for painting, Judd said that painting was completely abolished, and Rauschenberg didn’t give a damn. We went through the whole thing, the question of whether painting was dead, and of course we didn’t decide anything, but we had a good time.
Everybody was very sincere back then. They asked for questions after the panel discussion and people would get up and make speeches. This one guy got up and began making a statement. Rauschenberg yawned and he started sinking down in his seat. So I started sinking down in my seat too. We were both looking at each other and sinking in our seats until our faces were at the level of the table. The audience was looking at us and howling with laughter, and this guy thought that he was being funny, so he got into it and thought he was a comedian, that everybody was laughing at what he said. It just turned into chaos. The point is that 1966 is fifty years ago and painting isn’t dead. So there you go.
The third-generation abstractionists were not hostile to Pop Art. You yourself were making Pop-inspired paintings for a time. The stereotype is that the circle of Greenberg recoiled at the very sight of Pop, but it wasn’t that way at all.
Even Clem, he thought Robert Indiana was okay, and Jim Dine a little bit. He thought that Lichtenstein was a good designer. He would always give everybody their due. He just didn’t think that Pop Art amounted to very much. Clem was much more generous in his taste than people give him credit for. He used to tell a story about himself that when he juried an exhibition—and he was asked to jury a lot back then—he was always susceptible to giving out too many prizes and being too inclusive, to the point of putting the little old lady flower paintings in the show. He wasn’t black and white about things at all. There was more of that spirit back then, that Pop was just another development, and the same for minimalism when it came along. There were all these happenings, like the ones with [Claes] Oldenberg and Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainier. I thought they were really very interesting.
It hardens up when somebody gets successful. When Pop Art got successful it seemed to be overvalued. Nobody liked that very much. The idea gets around that a few people are getting too much of the pie. It’s human nature. We need a social scientist to write about this dispassionately and give us a real cultural history, somebody who looks at us as specimens, the way Margaret Mead looked at the South Sea Islanders.
These things don’t get worked out in the short term, and the short term is fifty years. Look at Andy Warhol. People are paying millions of dollars for his work. I keep wondering, When are people going to get tired of this guy’s paintings? They’ve turned into the ultra-tchotchke. If you have a Warhol you’re a hotshot collector. The quality of the thing, whether it’s good art or not, is absolutely beside the point. So there’s no selection being made on that basis. Things actually change very slowly now in the art world. People think that it’s very fast, and it is fast in the sense that it’s so big and there’s churning on the edges, but meanwhile most of it stays the way it is.
But things are beginning to separate. There’s a whole underground of abstract painting that doesn’t get any publicity. With everyone going in so many different directions, it’s getting to the point that you can choose your own genre, and the genres will be able to split off into their own tribes. The enlargement of the art world means, I think, that the pie is getting bigger for everyone. The abstract painters ought to recognize that they have their own art world, and should have their own magazines and have their own critics and all that so they don’t have to reconcile what they’re doing with everyone else. If that could come about you could get a Renaissance of abstract painters competing against each other, not giving a damn about the other stuff, and you could start getting abstraction to take advantage of all the things that got cut off back in the early sixties when Pop Art and Minimalism took over the market. There are a lot of people not in the market who understand good painting and can recognize it. They’re all over the place and they just need their own family.
If that tribe of abstractionists comes together, what are the possibilities that were cut off that they could work on?
Well, color is one. Nobody really gets into the mechanics of color. Even very good painters never got into the mechanics of color. Abstract painters shunted it aside because they considered it unimportant. As a consequence they used colors out of the jar. And they used color for area identification rather than coloristic effect.
Even someone like Kenneth Noland?
Oh, Noland would be a supreme example of someone to follow. He was influenced by Paul Klee, another one who did very interesting things with color. Noland was able to do just magical stuff putting colors together. I envy him endlessly. It’s like Matisse, you can’t point at what’s good about it, it just hits you, bam, right in the eye. Why his colors worked, how he used shapes and symmetricality to make his colors effective, all that could be explored further.
There’s also the idea of using open space to make paintings, like in [Mark] Rothko and [Morris] Louis. There are a lot of things that [Hans] Hofmann did that nobody was able to follow up on. It seems like there’s no end to the possibilities of hard edge combinations. Another thing would be the sophisticated use of new mediums, materials that weren’t even around in the Sixties. There are so many things you can do that haven’t been done because it doesn’t have the support.
Innovation has collapsed into weirdness that doesn’t have any lasting quality to it. Innovation in abstraction used to be recognized. That’s what happened in the Forties. Everyone knew how good de Kooning was. We have to build our own art world in which people recognize when something is good and new. The example I always use is Rex Stewart. According to a friend of mine, when Stewart heard Louis Armstrong he said he was never going to play his horn again. He just sat there at the table and cried. It took three seconds for him to recognize how good Louis Armstrong was because of the cultural structure around the conventions. That’s what does it. Without that you have nothing. You need a tribe and a big family and art teachers and writers. Get smart people together who can create something worthwhile.